Giving Children Choices Creates Connection & Invites Cooperation

Having trouble getting your kids to come to the table at dinner?  Do you wish they wouldn’t argue so much at bedtime?  And how about that homework? When kids are faced with things they’d rather do, over and above things they’d rather NOT do, giving them choices diffuses the power struggle and invites their cooperation.  It’s true!  From the earliest age, giving your child choices creates an atmosphere conducive to cooperation.  Do they want milk, or juice?  Do they want to brush teeth now, or in 5 minutes? Would they like to go to the park or the pool?  Would they like to get ready for school early, or on time?

While it’s true that you are in charge as the parent, being in charge does not mean controlling everything about your child’s behavior.  Being in charge means keeping your children safe and healthy and thriving in all aspects of their lives – and when they become the adults, their safety, health and growth will be based on their ability to make good decisions.  Being given more options allows kids to have a sense of control over their own ability to calm down and regulate their emotions and behavior.  Further, and more importantly, giving choices is one of the best ways of providing children with the stepping stones they need to develop their own autonomy. 


Either-Or Choices

These are used to stop an inappropriate or unhealthy behavior, such as arguing, yelling, fighting or tantrums. Even though you are setting up a break from the behavior or a consequence, you can offer your child choices regarding how to go about following through on your instructions, so they are still allowed a sense of control over themselves and their actions. For example, if you are intervening in sibling rivalry:

  • “It looks like you need a break from sister right now. You may choose to play with your cars, or color in the living room.”
    • If the choice is met with protest, provide empathy. 
      • “Oooh, your really frustrated with sister right now huh?  You really don’t want her to have the game.  I understand buddy.  It’s ok to be frustrated, it’s just not ok to grab and push.  Let’s find something else for you to enjoy right now.  You can play with cars or color, what do you think?” (Or whatever other choices you may offer)


 When-Then Choices

These are used to motivate a child to start a behavior, such as brushing their teeth, making their bed or doing homework. It is not the same as bribery, because it requires different language and logic. A bribe would begin with the word IF, e.g.,

  • “IF you do your homework, I’ll let you stay up late to watch a movie.”


Beginning your request using the word IF mistakenly communicates that cooperation with the request is not necessarily expected. Using a When-Then choice is more motivating to the child because it demonstrates that cooperation is expected regardless; namely, when they cooperate with the behavior that is expected, then they will be able to engage in an acceptable behavior that they enjoy.

For example:

  • “As soon as (WHEN) you finish your homework, THEN you may play games for a half hour.”
    • If they choose not to finish the homework, they also choose not to play games.
      • (Note: This can become a power struggle, so be careful. Choices are not the only way motivate your child to move toward the behavior or disposition you would like to see, rather, they first need a STRONG connection to you.)

 Empowering Micro-Choices

Some things are just not that important, such as whether your daughter wears her red overalls or green dress to school, or your son eats a chicken or egg salad sandwich for lunch. Use these things to give your child practice in making micro-choices, which also communicates that you hear and value their voice.

  • “Do you want to go to bed now or in five minutes? ”
  • “Which book would you like to look at?”
  • “Do you want to use a blanket during naptime?”
  • “Would you like to use crayons or paint today?”


A key rule to remember is to give only choices that you can agree to. Some adults say things like, “Do you want to eat lunch now?” or “Do you want to go take a nap?” Do children really have a choice? What if the child says, “No, I want to play.” These are times when choices shouldn’t be given. Offer choices only when the child will truly be allowed to choose.

 Though choosing for your child can be a time-saver, consider this: the times when they really DON’T have options, you can point out the difference to help them begin to identify and understand kid choices from parent choices

  • “This morning I let you choose whether to take your yellow bus backpack or red ladybug backpack to school, and you chose the red ladybug – I’m you like it! Now I hear that you want to go the park, but this afternoon, I cannot offer you a choice, because we have to go to the conference at your school, and then to your piano lessons, so there will not be time for the park.  Would you like to go tomorrow or on Saturday?”


Older kids need the same types of micro-choices relevant to their worlds:

  • “You can quit soccer if you want, but what sport or physical activity do you think you’d like to try? You need to choose one physical activity.”
  • “The doctor says you have to have a shot. Do you want it in the right arm or left arm?”


You need to let your child see that some things are non-negotiable, but its best to offer them options when possible, and then respect their preferences.  This will empower them and build their sense of competence and confidence when it comes to making decisions and solving problems, and it will increase their sense of respect for us as their parents, and trust in our decision-making skills.







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